Adding a display to smart speakers is a relatively new thing still, so a lot of companies are experimenting to figure out the "best" experience for everyone. For such a simple concept, it really does require careful design to create something you can put anywhere and still have it be great. The way the speakers fire, the angle of the display, and the amount of space the whole thing takes up are all incredibly important. Mess one of these things up, and your smart display stops being useful in several rooms of most homes.
Google's Home Hub was announced with a couple of bold claims. According to the marketing materials, this is the smart display you'd actually want to put in your bedroom, or feel comfortable putting anywhere else and enjoy the way it disappears into the environment until you want to use it. For anyone who has used an Amazon Echo Show or Lenovo Smart Display, you know these claims are more than a little lofty.
After a few days using it, however, I see this isn't marketing fluff at all. Google's Home Hub really does disappear into a room, and it really is the only smart display I would ever put in my bedroom. And it all comes down to the simple, brilliant design decisions that went into this impressively tiny assistant.
- Flawless LCD display
- Fantastic night modes
- Practical privacy features
- Nearly perfect microphones
- Clever new Smart Home management tools
- WHY NO NETFLIX, GOOGLE?
Google Home Hub What I like
After the last year of the bulky Amazon Echo Show and the massive Lenovo Smart Display taking up space in my kitchen, the first thing that continues to blow me away about Google's Home Hub is how compact it is. This thing is tiny compared to the current batch of smart displays. The 7-inch screen sits in front of a conical speaker with two buttons on the entire body, and that's the privacy switch to disable the microphone and a volume rocker. The bezels on the display aren't bad either, so you really just get the display and a little bit of the stand when looking at it head on.
This thing is tiny.
Firing Home Hub up felt neatly identical to the Lenovo Smart Display, even though they aren't both running Android Things. Instead, Home Hub is running something lighter-weight and based on Google Cast, but you really wouldn't know it by looking at or interacting with this thing.
The way it reacts to "Hey Google" and the kind of information it displays is identical, save for one key place. There's a top menu you can pull down with a swipe, and it looks a whole lot like the Home controls in your Google Home app. You can swipe around to control lights, outlets, thermostats, really anything connected to your network that works with Google Assistant. It's a souped-up version of the home control system you see on the Amazon Echo Show, and a worthy addition to this experience.
The real star of the show here is the display. This 7-inch LCD panel works with a light sensor on the front on the Home hub to match your room in the same way your phone does. If it's dark in the room, the panel dims. If you use LEDs that lean more on the cooler end of the color spectrum, Home Hub will adjust to match. If the lights are out entirely, Home Hub will shift to a super dim black-and-white clock that you could easily use on a bedside table.
When you're not using it at all, Home Hub's brightness will drop to a position that makes it so the display is almost impossible to notice unless you're looking for it. Where most displays are bright enough to catch your attention as you walk through a room, Home Hub intentionally avoids this. My son, poking at the new thing in the house, remarked that the display looked like an actual photo was taped to the front of it, instead of like a screen. When you aren't using this thing, Google wants it to disappear. And it does.
This is a stunning example of how much Google as a company is focusing on quality design and functionality, while being dead simple to set up and use.
There's nothing missing from this experience, either. Using Google Cast instead of Android Things does not mean it is missing something the Lenovo Smart Display offers. You can stream music and video to it, dial out and receive video calls with Duo, and access all of the same great kitchen-friendly cooking instructions. The microphones easily picked up my voice from across the room even when blasting music at 90% of its max volume, and it connects to any other Google Assistant speaker for a unified music experience.
And for my privacy-focused friends out there, you will find no camera on this smart display and the microphone is very easily disabled with a physical switch. What you will find is incorporation with Digital Wellbeing in the form of Downtime support. You can set Home Hub to stop responding at certain points of the day, which is handy when you want some personal time with a significant other or you want the kids to actually go to bed when you send them.
Home Hub can also be set to filter music and Actions to a PG rating, which is handy if you have little ones. Couple that with Google Assistant's ability to only grant access to your personal information when it hears your voice making requests, and Google Home Hub quickly becomes the best option for safe and smart access to home controls.
Google Home Hub What I don't like
There's very little about this Home Hub I don't like, but there are a few things about this design that are necessary compromises. The speakers on Home Hub are not the loudest in the world. They sound very good, especially when you use the Google Home app to customize the bass and treble to your personal liking, but if loud is all you're looking for you won't find it here. The massive speaker in the Lenovo Smart Display or Echo Show 2nd Gen are much louder — which makes sense because they're also considerably larger. The speaker in Home Hub sounds pretty close to what you get with Google Home, which makes sense given the size.
My biggest frustration with Google Home hub is a piece of the software. Specifically, the confusing way you can't use every Google Cast app with this display. Like the Lenovo Smart Display, you can't connect Netflix at all. If you tap the Cast button in Netflix, smart displays don't show up. Hulu, Plex, and dozens of others work just fine, and once you get a stream started from Cast on your phone you can control everything on Home Hub with your voice or with touch. We have yet to get a satisfactory answer from Netflix or Google on why this doesn't work, but as someone who enjoys having a show on while I cook this really needs to be fixed.
Google Home Hub: Should you buy it?
I am already on board with smart displays, especially in the kitchen. But Google Home Hub is the first smart display I have wanted to use in other parts of the house. It's a digital photo frame that looks like it's holding real photos, a quality music speaker when you're jamming out, and a fantastic way to start your day by asking for your news feed while getting dressed in the morning. This is a stunning example of how much Google as a company is focusing on quality design and functionality, while making things dead simple to set up and use.
And, honestly, the price is perfect. At $150, this is something you can be comfortable trying even if you're not totally sold on smart displays. Once you have this one in your house, I'm pretty sure you'll agree it's just about as close to perfect as a smart display can get right now.
Something I didn't focus on much above, Home Hub comes in four really interesting colors. The Chalk (white) and Charcoal (black) colors are pretty safe for just about any house, but the Aqua (blue-green) and Sand (pink) colors really pop in person. Personally, I'm a fan of the Aqua, but the variety of options makes choosing the right one for you a lot more fun.
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